Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Part Athenian, Part Visigoth

In a commencement address never delivered, Dr. Neil Postman once argued that there were two contrasting cultural paradigms, one of which inspires and produces the culture of the highest common denominator and the other of which constantly threatens to corrode our collective sensitivities and produces the culture of the lowest common denominator. http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com/archives/2005/06/athenians-and-visigothsneil-postmans-graduation-speech.html The first culture is Athens, and the second is that of the Visigoths. Athens, he argues, was characterized by literacy, democracy, philosophy, art and the finest culture, while the Visigoths were characterized by brutality, simplicity, crudeness of speech and artistry, and a bent toward destruction. These two contrasting cultures not only represent opposite values and traditions, they also represent the two poles of culture either of which subsequent societies align with. Dr. Postman argues that the Athenian culture is the superior culture, indeed, even the model culture, while the Visigoth culture is the default culture which we are born to emulate and perpetuate apart from an intentional effort to pursue truth, beauty, and civility. While it is undoubtedly true that Athens represents a cultural high water mark, and possesses an enduring legacy, I cannot agree with Dr. Postman that this is the culture we ought to emulate. What I will argue for is a culture that is something in between, something that is part Athenian, part Visigoth. Let me explain.

Attempting to defend his proposition, that Athenian culture is superior and that we ought therefore to emulate it, Postman points to Athenian language and art, along with their byproducts as illustrations of cultural excellence. Clearly, if we were to make our evaluation of these two societies purely on the basis of their cultural byproducts, and then based on that evaluation establish which culture ought to be emulated, then Athens would win hands down. The Athenians left for our admiration the Parthenon, the poetry of Sappho and Pindar, the tragedies of Euriopides and Sophocles, the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle, not to mention political democracy and the Olympics, while the Visigoths left behind “no poetry, no theater, no logic, no science, no humane politics.”

However, though the Athenian accomplishments are illustrations of the enduring quality which characterized much of Athenian culture, they only capture one side of the cultural spectrum. Sure, on the one hand, there is something to be said for art that arranges a collage of images, colors, and shapes in symmetrical order and realistic proportion. But, on the other hand, there are numerous examples of non-representational art of the sort of Visigoth mold that provokes real thought and deep emotion simply because it doesn’t reproduce a depiction of reality that borders on the Rockwellesque and surreal. Instead, it highlights and accentuates the twisted and uneven grooves and texture of the world we actually live in. To say that one is “better” than the other and ought to be cherished above the other and modeled, while the other should not be, is a sort of snotty elitism, a bigotry, and amounts to a purely subjective value judgment.

To follow Postman’s argument out further, let’s think about Athenian rhetoric. Yes, the prose is polished, elegant, even stately, and the argument is often well developed. However, to insist that this is the only kind of communication that is admirable or even effective is a stretch. Think of the power and insight generated by simple non-verbal cues which speak volumes without words and sentences. Beyond the non-verbal, think of the brilliant, non-Athenian style of Hemingway who communicated with an economy of words. Or, consider, the vigorous oratory of Churchill which lacked the polish and grand style of the Golden Orators of ancient Athens. The only point I am trying to make here is that the “simple” rhetorical model of the Visigoth doesn’t always indicate lack of nuance, depth, or insight as Postman seems to suggest. The clear, simple, yet aggressive style of the Visigoth can be just as effective and meaningful as the Athenian style.

Beyond the comparison of cultural byproducts, I believe there is an important argument to be made for Visigoth culture with its commitment to the martial way. The Visigoths were warriors, horsemen, and strategists. These technical skills were part of a broader martial ethos that included the qualities of self-discipline, valor, comradery, and persistence. This kind of martial ethos is essential for a society if it is to enjoy the opportunity to engage in culture. No society will long enjoy the luxury to ponder, reflect, communicate, compose, sculpt, or paint without the presence of a warrior class and a martial spirit to protect from external marauders or to restrain the internal threats posed by the inherent darkness in citizens, which constantly threatens to erupt in chaos and plunge the polis into disorder. Peer pressure is certainly not enough to restrain such inherent corruption, neither is the power of a good example; tough-minded, exacting brute force is. A well-founded society must have an enforcer, there has to be somebody who everyone fears enough to bridle their darker instincts and who keeps opportunistic outsiders at bay out of fear of severe bodily risk or even death.

But the positive aspects of the Visigoth ethos consists in more than just providing physical security it impacts other areas of society as well, namely, economic development. In contrast to the Greeks, who were more fascinated with the contemplative, the Visigoths were pragmatic, they were about utility. Their concern was how to use knowledge and skill for gain, as Postman notes, “To a Visigoth, the quest for knowledge is useless unless it can help you to earn money or to gain power over other people.” In other words, the Visigoth contribution to society is the development of a mindset that seeks to turn ideas into applications that have a useful purpose and economic benefit. That stands in contrast to the Athenians who seemed to think of themselves as above that; after all, they had slaves do their work anyway, so they didn’t really seem to care as much about efficiency of production or utility. The only reason why I can see that someone would count that as a negative, is because they are so culturally idealistic and Utopian that they are social egalitarians and don’t want a society where there are class differences based upon skill and individual genius. But, if you have a free market society, ingenuity is the genius that paves the pathway out of poverty into the track of upward social and economic mobility. The Visigoth ethos contributes toward a society of economic prosperity precisely because it cultivates an attitude which is both pragmatic and opportunistic, contemplative and utilitarian.

So, I argue, the best culture is a combination of cultures, one which is part Athenian and part Visigoth, a culture which balances the pursuit of the aesthetics of the Athenians with the cultivation of the martial ethos of the Visigoths. This culture is embodied first of all at the individual level, and then valued and developed at the community level. An individual who lacks martial discipline will either not enjoy the requisite personal qualities to develop their latent mental and aesthetic abilities to their fullest potential or will experience the frustration of having their self-expression being constantly interrupted or worse yet destroyed by thugs and savages. On the other hand the individual who lacks mental and aesthetic abilities yet cultivates martial skill in unequal proportion, will either become so one dimensional that they will become grotesque and eventually self-loathing, or will plunge the culture around them into a state of chaos and darkness in a quest for illegitimate domination. By striking a balance between these contrasting personal qualities the individual will be given the freedom to think and engage in articulate self-expression. When a culture consists of individuals with the proportional balance of Athenian and Visigoth it will possess both mental and aesthetic discipline as well as physical security and internal order. In other words it will be both smart and tough, powerful and articulate, ordered and imaginative. That is what I mean by part Athenian, part Visigoth, and I believe that is the kind of culture that we ought to attempt to emulate.


Andrew C said...

Holy cow - are you kidding me?! I didn't realize you had a blog! Way to go brother! This stuff is golden! Keep up the great work!!!


John Sawtelle said...

Hey thinks for stopping by and checking it out. Come on back any time.